The world's most powerful professional sports league is in its fourth month of labor-related lethargy, with NFL owners and players locked in a multi-billion-dollar stare down. Anxious for free agency and weary of the war of words, the eyes of football fans around the world are starting to glaze over.
In other words, the owners and players have you right where they want you.
Despite a breakdown in communication and trust that boiled over last week, the two sides are closer to an agreement than many people realize – perhaps than even some of the people involved realize. That the respective negotiating teams hung in amid the negativity and held a marathon session Thursday and a shorter one on Friday was a deceptively positive sign.
As the owners and players prepare to reconvene this week in New York City following the Fourth of July holiday, a deal is very much there for the making. And if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and their respective table mates can pull it off in the next few weeks, they'll all be heroes, and this Lost Offseason will be forgiven and forgotten before you can say fantasy draft.
There has been a lot of heavy-handed rhetoric thrown around since the NFLPA decertified on March 11, Tom Brady(notes) et al. filed their antitrust lawsuit against the league and the owners locked out the players – some of it by yours truly – and there's a tendency to assume that all parties concerned will suffer irreparable damage from the bloody standoff.
If regular-season games are missed, I suppose that's possible. But if there's a tentative deal on a new collective bargaining agreement by the end of the month, the NFL will come out looking better than Aaron Rodgers last Super Sunday.
Many fans will be so grateful that football is back that they'll swallow their earlier vows of punishing the labor war's perpetrators and greet them like long-lost lovers. I expect embracement, excitement and even euphoria.
Now all the players and owners have to do is settle their differences and hug it out.
It shouldn't be that hard. The formula suggested last month by the players, which ties their take to the concept of "all revenue," instead of "adjusted revenue," is a simple and reasonable one that should appeal to both sides. Rather than squabble over an altered business model, cost credits or whether owners should open their books, the all-revenue approach frees up the respective parties to craft a cut-and-dried, mutually beneficial business partnership.
The owners get the economic concessions they sought – with the players reducing share of total, unadjusted revenue from roughly 51 percent to 48 percent – and the players get a more favorable salary cap that forces teams to spend real dollars to beefed-up minimum thresholds.
Both sides benefit via the growth of the revenue pie, thanks to various potential devices: Maximizing the next round of TV deals because of long-term labor stability; selling a season-long Thursday night package; and putting one or more teams in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest media market. The biggest collective moneymaker, a possible expansion of the regular season to 18 games, will likely be tabled for the first couple of years of the deal but ultimately revisited.
Throw in a pair of resoundingly popular measures – a rookie wage scale and a "legacy fund" to benefit retired players with medical issues – and you've got as close to a win-win situation as anyone could have expected.
It makes too much sense for both sides to settle for it not to happen. With legal uncertainty looming in the form of two pending decisions – the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit's ruling on the lockout's legality and federal judge David Doty's assessment of damages in the "lockout insurance" case – this is each side's chance to control its own fate before a potentially damaging loss of leverage.
And the bottom line is that, for all the drama, legal wrangling and back-and-forth sniping, this dispute really isn't that complicated.
"There's a deal to be made that works for both sides, and I know exactly what it is," one owner told me. "I could write it up on a piece of paper for you right now. It's not hard. It's just getting there that might be hard."
This conversation, by the way, happened back in June – June of last year, that is.
I'm fairly confident that the deal points the owner described then are very similar to what the eventual agreement will look like, and that the numbers won't be that different from the ones the two sides were tossing around in March, before the Lockoutpalooza Tour commenced.
In the end, it will come down to common sense.
That argument by the players that sales tax on tickets should be included as revenue to be shared with the league? Good luck with that.
The owners' have-it-both-ways insistence upon shifting to an "all-revenue" model and getting cost credits? Sure, whatever you say.
Once these outlier arguments are eliminated and the spirit of compromise prevails, we'll stop hearing that NFLPA attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and Jim Quinn were bogeyman hell-bent on blowing up any prospective settlement or that owners like the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson and the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones were unreasonable bullies with no respect for the players they employ. Instead, they'll all be portrayed as dogged advocates for their respective positions who ultimately stood down – either because it was the right thing or the most pragmatic move – as a settlement neared.
Any fallout from the work stoppage will soon become an afterthought. Yes, there will be folks with legitimate gripes. Undrafted rookies will have to scramble to sign with interested teams and, because they've been denied months' worth of instruction, will face longer odds than usual of fighting their way onto a roster. While there will be some fast and furious movement among veteran free agents, many will simply re-up with their current teams and put off testing the market until next year or the year after. Look for a lot of one- and two-year deals at virtually the same pay grade as players and teams search for short-term stability amid the madness.
As I wrote months ago, fans of teams with new systems, coaches and quarterbacks have ample reason to be bummed about the lockout, because those franchises will likely be at a relative disadvantage in 2011. Two words: Oh well.
While coaches and general managers are undoubtedly frustrated by the situation, know that the owners, and a majority of the players, are hardly broken up over the offseason that wasn't. No veteran is bothered by the prospect of an abbreviated training camp, and the likelihood that the quality of play in the preseason might be even shoddier than usual is of zero concern.
The scheduled exhibition opener between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears in Canton, Ohio, is set for Aug. 7, and it has been suggested that the two teams need at least 10 days of preparation to make such an event possible. To which I say: Yeah, right.
First of all, if the Hall of Fame game turns out to be a glorified scrimmage, do you really think anyone will be complaining? The story of the game won't be the lackluster play, it'll be, "Hey, football's back!" Period.
Secondly, while it might not be fair for the Rams and Bears to be the only two teams forced to confront the start of free agency after having already started training camp, their respective front offices will be told to stop their whining and start multitasking, and the sun will still rise in the east.
(And by the way, while NFL general counsel Jeff Pash has insisted that the league won't lift the lockout until an agreement is finalized, chalk that up as more over-the-top rhetoric. Back in 1993, when the league and formerly decertified NFLPA announced the CBA that ushered in the modern era of free agency, the lawyers didn't get done nailing down the final language until months after the rules had been implemented. There's no way Pash's threat is realistic: The lockout will end once a tentative agreement is reached, or very shortly thereafter.)
In terms of the big picture, I don't even think the potential loss of some or all of the preseason would be that ruinous. Yes, it would reduce the overall value of the deal by as much as a reported $800 million, but over the course of a 10-year CBA that's not a massive number – and, perhaps, a small price to pay by each for getting it right.
The real no-muss, no-fuss deadline for the return of football, in my opinion, is Sept. 8, when the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers are scheduled to kick off the regular season at Lambeau Field.
Trust me, missed non-exhibition games are the real bummer. Those of us who remember the strikes of 1982 (when the NFL was reduced to a nine-game regular season) and '87 (15 games, three of which were staged largely with replacement players) can attest to the tumultuous atmosphere and the scars that lingered. By those standards, this work stoppage – while the subject of intensive media and fan scrutiny – has been relatively mild, at least so far.
And if the lockout ends before any games that count are sacrificed, it may turn out to have been a somewhat positive interlude, at least on some fronts.
First, if Goodell and Smith can get a long-term CBA finalized, each leader will emerge as a stronger force than he was before. All those boos Goodell absorbed during the NFL draft and the public beat-downs he got from players will be in his rear-view mirror, and the commissioner will be in position to become a leader capable of exerting his will upon the owners, as predecessor Paul Tagliabue was for much of his reign.
Smith, meanwhile, will have disproved all the spiteful critics who charged that he was a self-serving grandstander with no regard for the game of football – not to mention the owner who compared him to a "psycho girlfriend" – by doing what predecessor Gene Upshaw did for a quarter-century: Being tough enough not to get pushed around by owners but savvy enough to know when to make a deal.
This was always going to be the toughest negotiation between the two men, given that the owners were already intent on opting out of the CBA extension they'd agreed to in March 2006 when Goodell was hired to replace Tagliabue that summer, and that Smith walked into a labor war he saw coming like Ray Lewis(notes) on a third-and-2 blast through the middle of the line after Upshaw's sudden death in August 2008.
Though their interactions were strained at first, Goodell and Smith have forged a much stronger personal relationship over the past few months, and this could very well be the start of a sustained era of strong communication and labor peace.
If they do this deal, neither man will have to feel like he caved, nor will the owners or players they represent.
History will show that each side survived the other's supposed nuclear option – decertification by the NFLPA and the accompanying antitrust legislation, and the lockout (with the threat of a lost season) by the owners – and hopped off the path of mutually assured destruction.
Each side had its share of victories, flexed its beer muscles and established that it was no pushover.
Smith showed he was a forceful, perceptive leader who wasn't easy to undermine, and if he presides over a settlement, he'll affirm that he was able to keep control of Kessler and Quinn, too. It says something that players have been more engaged, informed and together than most people – and certainly most of the owners – expected them to be throughout the process. For many reasons, I feel Smith has a chance to be a significant upgrade over his predecessor.
Get a new CBA locked in, and Goodell will have demonstrated that he wasn't merely a figurehead. I happen to believe that he cares deeply about the game and has a chance to be the best commissioner the league has known.
Though the process wasn't pretty, I think players and owners got to understand one another better as time went on and that a settlement wouldn't be within reach without some measure of shared respect. All of that is a good thing.
I also think that an unintended yet positive consequence of the lockout is that it provided us with a template for a saner, healthier offseason. This whole notion that players should be around for 14 weeks of minicamps and OTAs, followed by a training camp full of two-a-days, is silly and outdated, and players aren't the only ones who feel that way. The expectation that coaches must grind it out for 11½ months a year is also a bit ridiculous, and once a deal is made I think you'll see a collective workforce that's fresher and livelier than in typical years.
That the new CBA will likely include a significant reduction in the players' offseason commitment isn't entirely coincidental; when it comes to pulling back the reins on their employees and understanding what's really relevant, owners are a lot more evolved than coaches or GMs.
Best of all, having discussed the current state of negotiations extensively with people on both sides of the table, I'm confident that there will be plenty of provisions in a likely settlement that members of each camp will find distasteful. That's the sign of a successful negotiation in which there is no clear winner – and the building block for a long run of labor peace, as opposed to a lopsided agreement that either players or owners would feel they have to correct the next time around.
Given what has gone down the past four months, and how much apocalyptic chatter this work stoppage has generated, the two sides are in an enviable position. It's midway through the fourth quarter, and a positive outcome is very much in reach. Get back in the negotiating room, make a deal and give the fans back their football, and everyone gets to celebrate.
If you don't believe me, listen to the roar when the team you love charges out of the home tunnel before its first game back. Chances are, it'll be drowned out by the sound of your own voice cheering.
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